What Happened to ‘Hosanna’?
A meditation on Matthew 21: 23 – 32
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church October 1, 2017
Authority. We seek it out. We elude it. We honor and dishonor it. We rebel against it. We question it. We challenge it. We reject or embrace it. First time parents sometimes tremble in the face of realizing they have become the authority figures in their child’s life. Teachers stepping into the classroom for the first time, feel much the same way, whether their students are children or teens or young adults. Carrying authority is daunting.
I was with a group of pastors last week – varieties of ages and denominations and genders. The question came up of how the congregation addresses the pastor. Is it friendship or authority or some mixture of the two?? Some are called “Brother _____,” or “Pastor _______” because in their tradition it would be a sign of disrespect to be called by their first name. I went by “Ms Cathy” through so many years of children’s ministry, that it is still a little foreign to my ears to be called Reverend Hoop or Reverend Cathy. Though I worked hard for the title, the authority associated with it humbles me every day.
Authority. When Colin Kapernick sat on the bench during the playing of the National Anthem over a year ago, it mostly went unnoticed. Then he kneeled. Others joined him. A quiet protest associated with “Black Lives Matter,” became an issue of disrespecting authority, disrespecting the military and disrespecting the flag. The President even chimed in, at one point saying that he would consider passing a law that would require athletes to stand during the national anthem. When a white man says he is going to pass a law requiring people of color – among others – to hold a specific pose, we have a problem.
Kneeling is a humble stance. It is not an angry stance or a combative stance. It is a position of peace. A prayer pose. You can’t attack from your knees. When I first saw the kneeling players, I immediately thought of my son’s high school football games, and those awful moments when a player was down. What did the other players do? They “took a knee.” Players from both sides kneeled and waited. Hopefully, the player would be able to return to the game. Sometimes they had to be taken off the field.
A player kneels when another player is wounded, which is the symbolism I see in this so called “challenging of authority.” A player kneeling over the woundedness of our nation, a nation littered with alt-right protests, bitterness, division, discrimination. A dangerous nation for so many, particularly, young black men. Some teams are already publicizing what they will do at this week’s games. The Saints will kneel in solidarity before the anthem, and stand in solidarity during the anthem. Sometimes, our faith and our beliefs call us to challenge or question authority. On our best days, our faith and beliefs lead us to action that expands awareness and inspires action by others.
These genuinely curious religious leaders in our story ask Jesus: “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” For this question to make any sense, we need to know what “these things” are. Most recently, they include:
- riding into Jerusalem on a donkey while people shouted, “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
- storming into the temple and making a mess of the tables of the moneychangers, a mess we refer to as “cleansing the temple.”
But of course “these things” also include any number of infractions in the eyes of the religious leaders. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and allowed his hungry disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. He offered teachings, that to the minds of the religious leaders, seemed to undermine their very way of life, a way of life to which Jesus belonged.
We can only imagine the panic that ran through the temple this day. The word had surely spread to the Chief Priests that Jesus was headed their way before Jesus even crossed into the Temple courtyard. After the chaos this Jesus had introduced the previous day, they probably had a team of people ready to meet him. But they don’t confront him in a combative posture. They come to him with curiosity and questions. They choose to diffuse the situation by engaging him in theological conversation.
“What kind of authority do you have?” they ask, and in truly infuriating rabbinical style, Jesus answers their question with a question.
Here’s a question for you: “From whom did John get the power to baptize? From heaven, i.e. God, or from humans?” If you answer this question, I will answer yours.
Now the religious leaders are caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. John was the wild prophet, living in the wilderness. Some of them had been to see John, and he had called them a “nest of vipers,” but they also knew that he referred to one who would come after him. He had encouraged them to change their hearts and lives and let their actions produce good, life-giving fruit. He had warned that it was not enough to be born into the right family, to be the sons of Abraham…
So they approached Jesus and asked him to explain his reason for being. They wanted to know who empowered him to be this table turning prophet. They had now come face to face with two prophets who unsettled their spirits, who challenged their understanding of how to live in God’s ways.
Confused and anxious, they turn away from Jesus and try to come up with an answer to his question, but fear prevents them from answering. They fear acknowledging John as a prophet of God, and they fear denying that he was a prophet of God. Either way, someone will be angry with them, so they will not speak their truth. That’s a terrible way to live, isn’t it? That is an experience with which we can identify. That opportunity to speak out, to speak up, which we let slip through our fingers because we feared our friends would laugh at us, or our colleagues would think we just need to “lighten up.”
Who in that group of leaders, wants to speak up and say, “God. John’s authority came from God. We could tell his power was of God because we witnessed how that power changed people’s lives. People who were lost, found their way back through the healing waters of baptism.” Surely one of them is biting his tongue so hard that he can begin to taste blood in his mouth.
Since they can’t answer, since they honestly have no answer, Jesus offers them a story. He doesn’t lash out at them, or call them names. He doesn’t condemn them for condemning others. He offers them a story.
Two brothers. Two very human brothers. One says, “no, dad, I don’t want to work in the vineyard,” but changes his mind and goes and does the work. The other says, “yes dad, I’ll work in the vineyard,” but doesn’t do it. (I’m not sure he ever intended to do it – it sounds like he just wanted to get his father off his back!) Unlike most parables, with their twists and turns and surprises, this one is boringly straightforward. Things are just as they seem. The one who changed his mind for the good did his father’s will. Then Jesus hits it home…all those lost people, all those people who said they weren’t interested in working in the vineyard, all those people who changed their minds, they will experience God’s realm before you do, you holy people.
He doesn’t tell these religious leaders that they will never know God’s realm. He tells them that these outsiders will know it first…Isn’t that because they have already accepted the invitation to work in God’s vineyard? Isn’t that because they are already laboring for God’s realm here on this earth?
These outsiders had to tune out the voices that said they were the least and the lost. They had to trust in the voice that told them they were renewed and restored through the cleansing waters. Jesus ends the conversation with a very powerful note. He reminds the religious leaders that they have already had multiple opportunities to believe. First, they heard John’s voice themselves. Then, they witnessed the changes that came to the people in their community. Listen to the final verse of this passage:
For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Matthew 21: 32)
Metanoeō is the Greek word we usually hear when we read the word, “repent,” as when John called the people to repent, to turn from their ways and turn back to God. To repent is to turn. When Jesus leaves the religious leaders, he leaves them with a different word: metamelomai. We could read this last line as “even after you saw tax collectors and prostitutes believe in him, you didn’t feel remorse.” This word will reappear in Matthew 27:3 when Judas feels remorse over betraying Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
Jesus asks us, as he asked the religious leaders, “How might God’s authority manifest itself in your midst? When it appears, will you recognize it? Will you run from it? Will you allow this disruptive authority to work itself out through you? An authority that may make you unpopular? An authority that may leave others scratching their heads?”
“Authority is proved. Tested. Lived,” writes theologian Karoline Lewis. “Otherwise, we have every right to say ‘no’ to it, to question it, to resist, to take a knee…And when it comes to the church, ideas, creeds, doctrines, even Scripture, are not our authority. The true test of our authority is whether or not we believe in and make possible Immanuel, ‘God with us,’ in the world.”[i]
May that be our truth as a community of faith. May that be our authority – love embodied. With God’s help may it be so. Thanks be to God, Immanuel.
Amen and Amen.
[i] Lewis, Karoline. Workingpreacher.org. “True Authority,” https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4974, September 24, 2017.